Statutory TB testing of cattle in GB during the COVID-19 pandemic

The Animal & Plant Health Agency (APHA) recognises the potential challenges faced by farmers during the COVID-19 pandemic. APHA has a contingency plan in place for the specific scenario of reduced veterinary capacity to undertake TB skin testing.

APHA published advice for vets on 19 March 2020 in order to ensure a consistent approach to the prioritisation of TB testing across GB. Further APHA briefing notes for official veterinarians (OVs) have since been published on the APHA Vet Gateway and will continue to be updated as the pandemic progresses.

At present APHA is continuing to instruct statutory TB skin testing, however the UK Chief Veterinary Officer is keeping this under constant review. APHA is continuing to closely monitor the situation, and adjustments to TB testing instructions may be made as appropriate, as the COVID-19 pandemic progresses. The Q&A below applies to GB, unless specifically stated otherwise.

Q&A

It is normal to feel unsettled during this type of fast-moving situation. In addition to the general COVID-19 advice on GOV.UK, farmers can access various support organisations which can help, including the Farming Community Network across England and Wales, Tir Dewi in Wales and RSABI in Scotland.

 

Farming Community Network 03000 111999 (open 7am to 11pm)
Tir Dewi 0800 121 4722 (open 7am to 10pm)
RSABI 0300 111 4166 (open 7am to 11pm)
Samaritans 116 123 (open 24 hours a day)

 

The FarmWell website has lots of useful information on maintaining your personal and business resilience. The Agricultural and Horticultural Development Board (AHDB) has a page on COVID-19 advice for farmers and growers. For further information about the UK government response to COVID-19 including advice for businesses, visit GOV.UK

The Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) published a joint statement with the British Veterinary Association (BVA) on 20 March 2020 containing guidance on the status of vets as key workers. Vets working in food production from ‘farm to fork’ are considered to be key workers, which includes farm vets and official veterinarians (OVs) working in the food chain, including abattoir and other related inspection and certification work. APHA’s current position is that TB testing should only continue if, in the OV’s judgement, it can be done safely in accordance with current COVID-19 public health advice. The BVA and British Cattle Veterinary Association (BCVA) have both published guidance for vets continuing to TB test, and how it might be done safely.

TB testing should only continue if, in the vet’s judgement, it can be done safely in accordance with current COVID-19 public health advice. Vets are encouraged to have a conversation with the farmer and carry out a risk assessment before visiting the farm, to ensure that it is safe and practical to carry out TB testing whilst observing the advice on social distancing. Farmers can help by ensuring that they have good animal handling facilities in place to minimise human to human contact. They should observe social distancing advice and stay at least two metres (six feet) apart from the vet when the testing is being carried out. It is advised that the minimum number of people attend the test whilst maintaining safe handling of the animals.

If you have symptoms of COVID-19 (high temperature and/or a new, continuous cough), then NHS advice is that you need to self-isolate at home. In this case, you should not present your cattle for TB testing. Please contact your Veterinary Delivery Partner (VDP) in England and Wales, or official veterinarian (OV) in Scotland who carries out your TB testing. They will discuss rearranging your TB test with you, taking into account veterinary resource available at that time, and whether it can be done safely in accordance with current COVID-19 public health advice. If the test cannot be rearranged within your testing window, ask your VDP or OV to contact APHA so this can be recorded.

If you are required to self-isolate at home due to someone in your household showing symptoms of COVID-19, you should not present your cattle for TB testing. Please contact your VDP in England and Wales, or official veterinarian (OV) in Scotland who carries out your TB testing. They will discuss rearranging your TB test with you, taking into account veterinary resource available at that time, and whether it can be done safely in accordance with current COVID-19 public health advice. If the test cannot be rearranged within your testing window, ask your VDP or OV to contact APHA so this can be recorded.

If you need to self-isolate at home due to your age, a long-term health condition, pregnancy or a weakened immune system, you should not present your cattle for TB testing. Please contact your VDP in England and Wales or official veterinarian (OV) in Scotland. They will discuss rearranging your TB test with you, taking into account veterinary resource available at that time, and whether it can be done safely in accordance with current COVID-19 public health advice. If the test cannot be rearranged within your testing window, ask your VDP or OV to contact APHA so this can be recorded.

In England, until further notice, APHA will allow the closing date of a testing window to be delayed on a case by case basis. This will only be permitted on one occasion, and APHA will retain discretion on permitting this change in all cases. For surveillance tests, the closing date of the testing window can be delayed to help facilitate completion of the test. A testing window of three months will be delayed for an additional two months and a testing window of two months will be delayed for an additional month. Adjustments will be permitted for tests that are allocated over the next three months. After this period, testing instructions will revert to normal, unless advised otherwise. OVs should first discuss the implications of delaying the testing window with the farmer, as this could have unforeseen consequences, for example with animals being turned out at summer grazing. To request a delay to a testing window, OVs should contact APHA by email at [email protected]k.

 

In Wales there is no change to the testing window for officially TB free (OTF) herds, but cattle keepers wishing to test up to 30 days before the testing window opens can do so by contacting their OV practice and APHA. In Scotland, there are currently no changes to the instructions on flexibility for routine surveillance tests. This will be kept under review.

No. APHA will maintain the start date of the window when the test should have been completed so that future routine surveillance tests still happen at the same time of year.

TB tests are routinely completed in several parts, particularly for large herds. If one or more parts of a test are still outstanding before the testing window closes, the test becomes overdue. Due to reduced levels of TB testing during the COVID-19 pandemic and/or difficulties safely testing some individual cattle (e.g. calves), testing of herds may need to be completed over a protracted period, and this means that large tests are more likely to become overdue. If a TB test becomes overdue, whole herd movement restrictions are automatically applied and the herd’s officially TB free status is suspended (OTFS) until the test of all eligible animals in the herd is completed with negative results. Even if part(s) of the test have been completed, the whole herd is still subject to movement restrictions, not just animals that are yet to be tested. Once the test is completed at a later date, the next TB test of the affected herd will be scheduled in line with the date by which the test should have been completed, not when it was actually completed.

All bovines 42 days of age and older must be included in herd skin tests carried out to maintain or restore the herd’s officially TB free (OTF) status. If not all eligible animals are tested, then the test is considered incomplete, and the animals must be tested at a later date to complete the test. This is a requirement to maintain the recognition by international trade partners of the OTF status conferred to cattle herds in GB. 

Yes. If tuberculins have been injected and the test couldn’t be read within 72 hours (+/- 4 hours), then the test is not valid and must be repeated. The test cannot be repeated until at least 60 days have elapsed from the date of previous injection of tuberculins.

APHA acknowledges that some farmers will not be able to present their cattle for TB testing during the COVID-19 pandemic. This may be as a result of illness due to COVID-19, the need for self-isolation, caring for others who are ill or self-isolating, or childcare duties following school closures. In the first instance, please contact your VDP in England and Wales, or OV in Scotland to discuss rearranging your TB test. If it’s not possible to complete your TB test within the prescribed window, the test will become overdue. You should contact APHA for advice as soon as possible, preferably before the test becomes overdue. In the event of tests becoming overdue, APHA will follow the established procedures. Whole herd movement restrictions are automatically placed on the holding and the herd’s officially TB free (OTF) status is suspended (OTFS). This is because once a test becomes overdue, the TB status of the herd is unknown and it will be considered a potential risk to other herds. APHA’s overdue TB test procedure already has a built-in check point to assess for any exceptional circumstances that prevented the test being completed on time. To facilitate this check, VDPs and OVs will share information with APHA on which holdings and TB tests are being delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Cattle keepers must ensure that animal welfare is not compromised whilst their herd is under movement restrictions due to overdue TB testing. It is strongly advised that farmers contingency plan for this situation as the COVID-19 pandemic progresses.

Until further advised, keepers will not be referred to the relevant paying agency for overdue TB tests if they and/or their OV advise APHA that the test could not be completed during the testing window for reasons associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. Farmers must still aim to complete TB testing on time, and if possible contact their OV and APHA to discuss their situation before their test becomes overdue. The procedures in place to enforce overdue TB testing will be kept under review.

In England, Scotland and Wales, legislation does allow for the reduction of compensation payments where a keeper has failed to TB test their animals on time. Reductions in compensation apply to any reactors found at tests that are overdue by 60 days or more. However, until further advised, reactors found at overdue TB tests will not be subject to compensation reduction if the keeper and/or their OV advise APHA that the test could not be completed during the testing window for reasons associated with the COVID-19 pandemic. This will be kept under review.

Whole herd movement restrictions are automatically placed on cattle herds that become overdue with their TB testing, and their officially TB free (OTF) status is suspended (OTFS). This means that cattle cannot move onto or off the holding without a licence issued by APHA. If you are in this situation and you wish to move cattle, you need to apply to APHA for a licence using the following contact details.

 

England
03000 200 301
[email protected]
A licence application form is available on GOV.UK to complete and email to APHA

 

Wales
0300 303 8268
[email protected]

 

Scotland
03000 600 704
[email protected]

All movements must be licensed by APHA. Please refer to specific guidance on licensing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The requirements for statutory pre- and post-movement TB testing remain unchanged. If you are intending to move cattle off your holding that require a pre-movement test, contact your vet in good time to make sure that they can accommodate the testing. As these are private tests, if the vet that normally carries out your TB testing is unavailable, then another vet with the relevant official controls qualification for TB testing can undertake the testing. Before purchasing cattle, check that animals requiring a pre-movement test have been tested with negative results. For farmers in the Low Risk Area of England, Low TB Area of Wales, and in Scotland, you are strongly advised to check with your vet that they can accommodate statutory post-movement testing of eligible animals within the required window before moving cattle onto your holding.   

Due to reduced veterinary capacity for TB testing during the COVID-19 pandemic and to ease the burden on farmers, rollout of this policy is being deferred until the situation improves. Further information will follow in due course.

In breakdown herds, short interval tests (SITs) will continue to be scheduled from 60 days after the last reactor is removed. The window for completion of SITs is 30 days. In England and Wales, until further notice, closure of the testing window for short interval tests will be delayed by 30 days, meaning that the window for completion of the test will now be 60 days. This will be kept under review. In Scotland, short interval testing windows remain unchanged and the situation will be kept under review.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) and Food Standards Scotland (FSS) have contingency plans in place in the event of reduced slaughterhouse capacity to deal with TB reactor cattle. APHA also has a contingency plan in place in the event of reduced haulier capacity to transport reactors to contracted slaughterhouses. If removal of skin test reactors, interferon-gamma test positive or direct contact (DC) animals is delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic, those animals must remain isolated on farm until removal is possible. Farmers are responsible for the isolation of such animals pending their removal, and must ensure that their welfare is maintained during this time, particularly if removal is delayed. SITs will continue to be scheduled from 60 days after the last reactor is removed, therefore any delay in reactor removal will have a knock-on effect on subsequent SITs. However it is likely that SITs may be delayed anyway due to reduced TB testing during the COVID-19 pandemic.

This will depend on the availability of APHA field sampling and laboratory staff to undertake the required number of blood tests during the Covid-19 pandemic and the ability to comply with social distancing rules on the affected farm. APHA will inform you if the interferon-gamma blood test of your herd has to be postponed.

No. The Food Standards Agency (FSA) will not be able to undertake the required post mortem inspection and sampling of IRs, reactors and DCs except in slaughterhouses contracted by APHA to take reactors. This is due to the pressure that the COVID-19 pandemic is putting on FSA, particularly on supplies of face masks and other personal protective equipment required to inspect and sample IR, reactor and DC cattle. You should still be able to send your IRs, reactors and DCs to slaughterhouses currently contracted by APHA to take TB reactor cattle.

Yes they do, as your herd will already have been under TB restrictions for a reasonable length of time. Persistent breakdown measures such as removal of standard IRs, and interferon-gamma/antibody blood testing of severe IRs, are designed to minimise the likelihood of your herd being free to trade with infected cattle still present, and to remove those infected animals before they have a chance to spread infection in the herd.

Providing a pregnancy diagnosis in the face of Covid-19 pandemic has been classed as non-urgent and this requirement is suspended until further notice. You may present a pregnancy diagnosis certificate at valuation if you have already had one issued in the previous 90 days. If you do not have a pregnancy diagnosis certificate at valuation then the valuer will value the animal as though one were present. All animals declared as being in calf during valuation will be checked at the slaughterhouse.